If Gordon Brown really wants to start appealing to the middle-class vote, he could start by picking up my rubbish. The bin bags outside my flat in Kentish Town, north London, weren’t collected for four weeks over Christmas because of the snow. When the foxes started to rip them apart and left a trail of chicken carcasses and half-chewed bread across my front garden, I cracked.
Patching up the most damaged bag and strapping it to my handlebars, I pedalled along the snowy roads — if my bike could negotiate the streets, so could a rubbish truck, by the way — to my local park. There, I poured the rubbish into a large, metal-mesh bin. As I did so, a plump, unshaven man in an official council fleece stopped casually scattering grit on the park footpaths and accelerated towards me.
‘Bag that up and take it home,’ he said, in the flat, passive-aggressive tone of the jobsworth bolstered by a tiny measure of official authority.
‘I’m very sorry,’ I said, unaware that I’d done anything wrong, ‘But no one’s picked up my bags for four weeks and the foxes are ripping them up.’
‘That’s nothing to do with us — we’re the parks department; we’re different from the ones who do your bins.’
‘I see your point…’ — I didn’t, but the only way to deal with this sort of official bullying is to be polite, to stop them enforcing the small powers of punishment they’re aching to use. ‘I’m very sorry; can you give me their number, then, so I can sort this out?’
‘No. That’s nothing to do with me. Bag that up and take it home; if you don’t, the CCTV will get you. Or they’ll go through your rubbish and find your address, and get you.’
‘I can’t bag it up…’ — my bin bag, half-destroyed by the fox, had completely fallen apart after I’d emptied it — ‘but I’ll take what I can.’
The plump man returned to his casual grit-scattering, staring at me as I rummaged through the bread and the carcasses for an old Soave bottle, a few damp newspapers speckled with coffee grounds, and any envelopes with my address on them. Stuffing all this in my coat pockets, I gingerly bicycled across the snow to some bins outside the park fence, and outside his control.
This little tale — of one arm of council power crippled by health and safety, laziness and dislike of the public; the other crippled by aggression, trivial regulations, laziness and dislike of the public — is just the tip of the iceberg. Britain has become so overwhelmed by petty rules, regulations and laws, that sometimes you have to break them, knowingly or unknowingly, to get anything done.
When I trained as a barrister in 1997, we were proudly told in our first constitutional law lecture that Britain has few laws but, as a result, they are broadly obeyed; while in Italy, there are so many laws that they are blithely ignored. It was a coincidence that the lecture took place in Tony Blair’s first year in office. The avalanche of new law began before Labour came to power, but it has speeded up to extreme levels over the last 13 years.
We are now rapidly catching up with the Italian model. As a result, local and national government are coining it in. This week, it emerged that the authorities are raising £400 million a year from punishing middle-class mistakes: £12 million in spot fines for over-filling bins or leaving them out on the wrong day; £100 million from speeding tickets; and £330 million in parking fines.
I’m clearly not the only middle-class accidental anarchist trying to live a quiet life, but constantly coming up against the new rules that are impossible to abide by, but make all those fines inevitable. Anarchy’s the wrong word, really; that means no rule at all, something along Haitian lines. What I want is a micrarchy — a new word for small, or limited, rule, one that does without overbearing, pointless restrictions on day-to-day behaviour; like, say, the completely empty taxi lane on the M4 coming into London from Heathrow that leaves the other two lanes blocked.
Once I discovered that there are no cameras monitoring the lane, and that only 14 £60 fixed penalty notices were issued in 2008, and only six up to September last year, it became fair game. Just like the mini-cab firm Addison Lee, which instructs its drivers to use the lane even though they’re not allowed to, I always use it now, too; like a low-key version of Michael Douglas in Falling Down (1993), when he gets trapped in a traffic jam and goes on a wild vigilante spree to wipe out the horrors of modern life, from lazy shop assistants to gang warfare.
When the government levies harsher penalties for breaking its new rules — like with speeding offences, which pile points onto your licence — then you have to box clever to get round them. Once you know where the cameras are on a familiar road, you drive as quickly as possible between them, fuelled by rage and desperation to get to work on time, frantically braking the moment you see a yellow box.
Again, I’m not the only one — next time you see a pair of red brake lights suddenly burning brightly in front of you in the fast lane, don’t get angry; thank the middle-class anarchist in front of you for flagging up the speed camera ahead. (The government is already wise to this dodge; this week, it introduced the first ‘average speed’ cameras on the A13, running east of London for 7.5 miles from Canning Town, which will catch out us stop-starters.) The speeding-braking routine may not be safe, but it’s the logical result of what my old law lecturer called the Italian legal model.
Speed cameras treat every driver going over 70mph like a criminal. And draconian law like this just encourages you to get round it. A system that allowed a little leeway above 70mph, and only punished genuinely dangerous drivers, would be safer, and improve relations between the police and drivers. But that would involve traffic police actually doing some work, rather than letting the yellow metal cash cows just go on hauling in the millions.
The other advantage of a human being over a speed camera is that he can listen. A criminal barrister friend of mine recently told me what to do when you’re stopped by the police for any minor traffic offence — as I am, about once a month, for bicycling through a red light.
‘Immediately admit that you’re wrong,’ he said, ‘and then use the most powerful of all middle-class weapons: say sorry like you mean it, even though you don’t.’
If the Prime Minister wants to butter up the middle classes before the election, it’s too late for him to borrow our little ruse. Saying sorry won’t help; not treating us like criminals might.
Harry Mount is the author of My Brief Career — The Trials of a Young Lawyer (Short Books, £7.99).